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Going, going…

Proposal is for Paralympic arena in Squamish, second rink and enhanced athlete centre in Whistler

Trust us.

That’s the message from Whistler’s Mayor Hugh O’Reilly in response to questions about the 5,000-seat Paralympic ice arena being moved out of Whistler to Squamish.

The details of that proposal are not yet public as negotiations continue but the mayor Monday asked for trust in council as they work to find a solution, which works for everyone.

"We’re asking the community to trust us a little bit, that we’re trying to come away with the best options for ourselves long-term and maybe (leave) the legacy for one of the other communities because that’s what partners do," said O’Reilly after Monday’s council meeting.

After reading a prepared statement at the meeting, the mayor later confirmed that council is pursuing an option which would see the Paralympic ice arena being built in Squamish, a second smaller ice rink built in Whistler and a financial contribution towards the athlete centre in the athletes village. While these details are more than what’s been released in recent weeks, there remains a dearth of information about the proposal, particularly the financial aspect of what’s proposed.

Information to date indicates the Vancouver Organizing Committee was to have given Whistler $20 million to help build the arena.

VANOC spokesperson Renée Smith-Valade said this week the $20 million was offered to the RMOW as part of an overall package of facilities in Whistler.

"If the ice sledge hockey arena comes out of that package, then we would have to re-evaluate both location and budget," she said.

Under the new proposal, however, the mayor said most of the money would be staying in Whistler even if the Paralympic arena moves to Squamish.

"We think it’s a win-win situation," he said. "It’s a sharing of the legacies. We’d come away with some fabulous facilities, significant investment is made here and it also contributes to their economy."

O’Reilly’s comments come on the heels of pressure to make public the details of negotiations for the Paralympic ice arena.

"When is the public going to get a look at these options?" pressed community member Bob Lorriman at Monday’s meeting during the public question and answer period. "We’re left out in the dark here."

He later added he was uncomfortable with the way council is moving forward without keeping the public more informed.

"You’ve got to let us know what’s going on so we can trust you," he said. "I think somewhere along the line they should have told us ‘look, we’re having some challenges here, this might not work for us’ and they should have introduced that thought process to us at an earlier stage."

As per the Olympic Bid Book, Whistler was slated to put the 5,000-seat facility on Lot 1/Lot 9 in the village behind the Brew Pub.

The land there is zoned for commercial/recreational activities.

The first inkling Whistler was considering backing away from building the Paralympic facility in the resort came late last month at the regional district meeting. An interview with the mayor at that time revealed Whistler had yet to make a decision but was looking at all its options.

Squamish Mayor Ian Sutherland seemed surprised this week that more details were made public at Monday’s Whistler council meeting.

"We’re going through the stage right now where we’re working on what it would look like for our community, and location, costs, and sharing of those costs and those kinds of things," he said. "Part of the exercise that we’re going through now in preparation for making a definitive response is getting a true handle on those costs. But all indications are that for all kinds of reasons it’s cheaper to build the arena in Squamish than it is in Whistler."

It may be cheaper to build in Squamish but for village business owner Norbert (Roche) Doebelin it’s an opportunity missed for Whistler.

For more than a decade he has been waiting for a recreational development on Lot 1/Lot 9, which he thinks would help business in the village. That facility seems all the more necessary these days as the resort’s economy continues to slump.

The mayor said council still has options to develop that site.

"We’ve got a great asset there and we will find and consult with the community what it is we really need to make that site in the community best," he said. "But probably putting an arena there, as we see it now, is not really in our best interest."

To Doebelin, council’s proposal is a broken promise, not only to the local community but also to the Paralympic community.

"I expected it," he said in resignation. "That’s why they kept it secret because if they would have said it a half a year ago that they (were) consider(ing) that (moving the arena to Squamish), then there would be a much, much bigger public outcry."

Canadian Paralympic Committee CEO Brian MacPherson has been following the issue closely from Ottawa and was surprised to learn of the proposal to move the facility to Squamish.

"Our primary job is to bring a kick-ass Canadian team to the Games and win lots of medals," he said, "but saying that we also have opinions, we have wants and needs, and certainly it was a selling feature of the Vancouver bid that the Paralympic Games would be very much concentrated geographically speaking, frankly, to an unprecedented level with respect to the venues being so close to each other.

"And that was not lost on people within the International Olympic and Paralympic Committee and community, that the Games would be very compact and therefore athlete friendly. Losing that concept won’t be taken well internationally."

While the CPC would have supported the bid whether the arena was located in Whistler or not, MacPherson said it was a feature of the bid that was discussed internationally and may have been a factor that helped Vancouver to win IOC votes. The 2010 Paralympics would have marked the first time that the five Paralympic Winter Games events had taken place within a single community.

"On the Olympic side there are 13 sports in the Winter Games so people realize that venues have to be spread out, that you’re not going to get everything in one place. But even with only five Paralympic sports, the Games have still been very spread out… and here was an opportunity to have enough infrastructure that it would have all taken place in the mountains," he said.

Village merchant Rick Clare also has worries about spreading the Games between places.

"I think, if anything, it’s going to dilute our presence with the Olympics more, or it has the possibility to," he said.

As chair of the board of Tourism Whistler Clare said the organization has no official position on the ice rink but he did say that Tourism Whistler would put their marketing clout behind a 5,000-seat arena in the resort.

"We would market the resort with any facility and if a rink was part of that mix then I know we would market that rink as part of the mix," he said, adding that the board of Tourism Whistler has not addressed the issue of the rink. "Personally speaking I think there’s merit in investigating it further."

O’Reilly insists Whistler has done its due diligence and explored various avenues including public/private partnerships. In the end, building the arena in Squamish may just make the most sense, he said. When the public sees the details, he added, council’s decision to pursue that option would become evident.

"If you have a bigger rink you really have to have a pretty strong economic business plan, whether it’s conventions or music or other things, (and) that means your local guys aren’t using it," he said.

"You can’t just make something because you want to hold it close. You’ve got to make sure that the facilities make sense in the long term and I think that’s what you’re seeing now is we’re going through and doing good due diligence on everything – the ski jumps, the Nordic centre. We’re making changes because we think we’re making improvements, not because we made mistakes (but) because we think we can do better."

When asked why council has yet to make a decision, the mayor said other parties are involved and are still negotiating.

VANOC would like a response from Whistler before the end of August.

Again in response to public pressure Councillor Gordon McKeever asked council to consider holding off on a decision on the location of the sledge hockey arena until they host a public open house to give the community a chance to provide feedback.

Most councillors agreed, though Kristi Wells had concerns about how council would use that feedback effectively.

Councillor Ken Melamed did not agree to the open house, again calling on the community to put their faith in council.

"I think at some point the community has to trust us that we have done our due diligence on this," he said. "We have set a course already.

"Welcome to the rollercoaster/steamroller of the Olympics."

Pending decisions from other parties, a staff report highlighting all the details of this decision is expected before council at the Aug. 15 meeting. The open house will be held in the weeks prior to the first council meeting in September. Only then will council make their final decision.

Squamish Mayor Sutherland said his council is getting closer to making a decision and should be notifying Whistler in the coming weeks.

"Definitely from our point of view we’re getting to the point now where we can probably say to VANOC and Whistler pretty soon, ‘if you choose to move the facility to Squamish then we’ll do it,’" he said.

"It certainly gives Squamish a bigger part to play in the 2010 Olympics, which is what we’ve wanted to do. And for us to get a bigger part in the 2010 Olympics it takes the leadership of Mayor O’Reilly to help push that forward on that end. Hopefully, at the end of the day… it’s something that’s good for Squamish, good for Whistler and good for VANOC."

with files from Andrew Mitchell